Are We Green Yet?

By Michael Feldman

October 19, 2007

With crude oil prices hitting a record $87 a barrel this week, IT users are being reminded once again that datacenter energy consumption and computing demand are on a collision course. Earlier this month, the IT analyst firm Gartner reported that “by 2011, more than 70 percent of U.S. enterprise datacenters will face tangible disruptions related to energy consumption, floor space, and/or costs. In fact, during the next five years, most U.S. enterprise datacenters will spend as much on energy (power and cooling) as they will on hardware infrastructure.”

The problem is even more acute in the high performance computing realm, where increasingly more powerful systems are being built to work on increasingly bigger problems, like for example, (ironically) global warming. While overall performance-per-watt is certainly improving, those gains are being outstripped by the demand for even greater amounts of compute power. And even though the energy issue has been with us for awhile, it’s reaching a new urgency as energy consumption is starting to limit system size.

The 500 teraflop “Ranger” supercomputing cluster being built at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) is a good example. That machine is expected to draw 2.4 megawatts and require an additional megawatt just to keep it cool. Since Ranger is based on the latest quad-core Opteron technology, it pretty much represents the current level of performance-per-watt you can get from commercial x86 cluster technology.

The IBM Blue Gene is better in this respect. The German publication heise online is reporting the 220 teraflop Blue Gene/P system that was installed this week at the Jülich Supercomputing Centre uses just 500 kilowatts. That’s more than twice the energy efficiency of the TACC system. Along the same lines, the new SiCortex system just installed at Argonne National Laboratory on Monday (which I write about in this issue) uses just 18 kilowatts to achieve 5.8 teraflops. Like the PowerPC-based Blue Gene, the SiCortex machine leverages low-power RISC engines, in this case 500 MHz MIP64 processors, to achieve energy savings. By using a larger number of slower CPUs to achieve the same raw performance as a smaller number of faster x86 CPUs, overall energy use is reduced. It’s analogous to the multicore strategy of delivering a larger number of slower cores versus a single fast core.

The heise online article also points to a recent presentation by Alan Gara, chief architect for Blue Gene, where he talks about the looming energy problem of many-petaflop systems:

Mr. Gara is convinced that it will be possible at some time between 2015 and 2020 to achieve peak performances of 200 petaflops per second, but that the machines capable of such feats will require 25 to 50 megawatts of energy. And this assessment already takes a 20-fold improvement in energy efficiency for granted. According to Mr. Gara, for such a supercomputer acquisition costs and running costs would be on par.

Setting aside the feasibility of a 50 megawatt datacenter, Gara’s assessment essentially corroborates Gartner’s prediction that energy and hardware costs are equalizing throughout the industry. That should cause users to rethink their buying strategy for future systems. And since HPC systems have such high power rates and such high rates of technology obsolescence, one might assume this community would be leading the way to energy efficient systems.

With the exception of some in the HPC research community, this is not the case. While green IT organizations, consortiums and initiatives have become a growth industry, green HPC has not. Why? Lots of reasons:

  1. Lack of HPC Virtualization. The industry trend to reduce energy consumption by consolidating compute infrastructure with traditional server virtualization is a bad fit for HPC. In general, high performance computing has the opposite problem of an over built datacenter. HPC users want to distribute workloads over as much hardware as possible to speed execution, not crowd a lot of performance-hungry apps into a single box.
  2. Technology Momentum. Even in the cutting-edge realm of high performance computing, users have made long-term investments in software, hardware infrastructure, and human expertise that are tied to established technologies. If this weren’t the case, SiCortex and ClearSpeed would be filing for IPOs and there would be Blue Genes in every HPC facility. Application retargeting costs, additional infrastructure support and cultural bias all slow adoption of new technologies.
  3. New Problem. The urgency of the energy problem has escalated faster than people can understand it. Marketing departments have been quick to capitalize on this, since green computing is perceived as a “Mom and Apple Pie” issue by vendors. But the multitude of solutions and marketing claims is causing confusion. Every piece of silicon out there seems to be branded with the green label nowadays.
  4. Acquisition Costs. Initial acquisition costs still carry a lot of weight in decision-making. Part of the problem is that people who buy the hardware are often not the same ones paying the electric bill. In his Real World IT blog, George Ou argues that until the people who procure the hardware are the ones who get billed for the electricity that the hardware uses, the incentive to purchase energy efficient systems won’t exist. This is an industry-wide problem.
  5. Refresh Cycle. Related to acquisition costs is the hardware upgrade strategy. Most enterprises, HPC or not, refresh their hardware every three to five years. For high-end supercomputing, this cycle can be even longer because of the initial high acquisition costs. (No one’s going to decommission a multi-million dollar Blue Gene/L just because it uses more energy than the newer Blue Gene/P.)

Keep in mind that system acquisition and upgrade costs also reflect energy consumption — the energy used to develop, build and ship the hardware (and software!). So presumably this should be factored into the lifetime energy consumption of the machine. I don’t know if anyone has ever determined the energy required to construct a supercomputer, but I assume it’s significant.

I’ll finish with a sobering thought about the performance-per-watt metric that most of us throw around. It’s not that useful. In fact it’s no more useful than the peak performance metric that it’s derived from. Sustained application performance-per-watt is a more realistic way to measure the energy efficiency of a system. Better yet would be to measure the amount of energy required to solve a problem — “watt-hours to solution.”

Thinking about it like that might also help us to realize that software can play a huge role in energy conservation, even beyond virtualization technology. So no, we’re not green yet. We’re barely chartreuse.


As always, comments about HPCwire are welcomed and encouraged. Write to me, Michael Feldman, at [email protected].

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

What’s New in Computing vs. COVID-19: Fugaku, Congress, De Novo Design & More

July 2, 2020

Supercomputing, big data and artificial intelligence are crucial tools in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Around the world, researchers, corporations and governments are urgently devoting their computing reso Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

OpenPOWER Reboot – New Director, New Silicon Partners, Leveraging Linux Foundation Connections

July 2, 2020

Earlier this week the OpenPOWER Foundation announced the contribution of IBM’s A21 Power processor core design to the open source community. Roughly this time last year, IBM announced open sourcing its Power instructio Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Career Notes: July 2020 Edition

July 1, 2020

In this monthly feature, we'll keep you up-to-date on the latest career developments for individuals in the high-performance computing community. Whether it's a promotion, new company hire, or even an accolade, we've got Read more…

By Mariana Iriarte

Supercomputers Enable Radical, Promising New COVID-19 Drug Development Approach

July 1, 2020

Around the world, innumerable supercomputers are sifting through billions of molecules in a desperate search for a viable therapeutic to treat COVID-19. Those molecules are pulled from enormous databases of known compoun Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

HPC-Powered Simulations Reveal a Looming Climatic Threat to Vital Monsoon Seasons

June 30, 2020

As June draws to a close, eyes are turning to the latter half of the year – and with it, the monsoon and hurricane seasons that can prove vital or devastating for many of the world’s coastal communities. Now, climate Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

AWS Solution Channel

Maxar Builds HPC on AWS to Deliver Forecasts 58% Faster Than Weather Supercomputer

When weather threatens drilling rigs, refineries, and other energy facilities, oil and gas companies want to move fast to protect personnel and equipment. And for firms that trade commodity shares in oil, precious metals, crops, and livestock, the weather can significantly impact their buy-sell decisions. Read more…

Intel® HPC + AI Pavilion

Supercomputing the Pandemic: Scientific Community Tackles COVID-19 from Multiple Perspectives

Since their inception, supercomputers have taken on the biggest, most complex, and most data-intensive computing challenges—from confirming Einstein’s theories about gravitational waves to predicting the impacts of climate change. Read more…

Hyperion Forecast – Headwinds in 2020 Won’t Stifle Cloud HPC Adoption or Arm’s Rise

June 30, 2020

The semiannual taking of HPC’s pulse by Hyperion Research – late fall at SC and early summer at ISC – is a much-watched indicator of things come. This year is no different though the conversion of ISC to a digital Read more…

By John Russell

OpenPOWER Reboot – New Director, New Silicon Partners, Leveraging Linux Foundation Connections

July 2, 2020

Earlier this week the OpenPOWER Foundation announced the contribution of IBM’s A21 Power processor core design to the open source community. Roughly this time Read more…

By John Russell

Hyperion Forecast – Headwinds in 2020 Won’t Stifle Cloud HPC Adoption or Arm’s Rise

June 30, 2020

The semiannual taking of HPC’s pulse by Hyperion Research – late fall at SC and early summer at ISC – is a much-watched indicator of things come. This yea Read more…

By John Russell

Racism and HPC: a Special Podcast

June 29, 2020

Promoting greater diversity in HPC is a much-discussed goal and ostensibly a long-sought goal in HPC. Yet it seems clear HPC is far from achieving this goal. Re Read more…

Top500 Trends: Movement on Top, but Record Low Turnover

June 25, 2020

The 55th installment of the Top500 list saw strong activity in the leadership segment with four new systems in the top ten and a crowning achievement from the f Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

ISC 2020 Keynote: Hope for the Future, Praise for Fugaku and HPC’s Pandemic Response

June 24, 2020

In stark contrast to past years Thomas Sterling’s ISC20 keynote today struck a more somber note with the COVID-19 pandemic as the central character in Sterling’s annual review of worldwide trends in HPC. Better known for his engaging manner and occasional willingness to poke prickly egos, Sterling instead strode through the numbing statistics associated... Read more…

By John Russell

ISC 2020’s Student Cluster Competition Winners Announced

June 24, 2020

Normally, the Student Cluster Competition involves teams of students building real computing clusters on the show floors of major supercomputer conferences and Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Hoefler’s Whirlwind ISC20 Virtual Tour of ML Trends in 9 Slides

June 23, 2020

The ISC20 experience this year via livestreaming and pre-recordings is interesting and perhaps a bit odd. That said presenters’ efforts to condense their comments makes for economic use of your time. Torsten Hoefler’s whirlwind 12-minute tour of ML is a great example. Hoefler, leader of the planned ISC20 Machine Learning... Read more…

By John Russell

At ISC, the Fight Against COVID-19 Took the Stage – and Yes, Fugaku Was There

June 23, 2020

With over nine million infected and nearly half a million dead, the COVID-19 pandemic has seized the world’s attention for several months. It has also dominat Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Supercomputer Modeling Tests How COVID-19 Spreads in Grocery Stores

April 8, 2020

In the COVID-19 era, many people are treating simple activities like getting gas or groceries with caution as they try to heed social distancing mandates and protect their own health. Still, significant uncertainty surrounds the relative risk of different activities, and conflicting information is prevalent. A team of Finnish researchers set out to address some of these uncertainties by... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

[email protected] Turns Its Massive Crowdsourced Computer Network Against COVID-19

March 16, 2020

For gamers, fighting against a global crisis is usually pure fantasy – but now, it’s looking more like a reality. As supercomputers around the world spin up Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

[email protected] Rallies a Legion of Computers Against the Coronavirus

March 24, 2020

Last week, we highlighted [email protected], a massive, crowdsourced computer network that has turned its resources against the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe – but [email protected] isn’t the only game in town. The internet is buzzing with crowdsourced computing... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Global Supercomputing Is Mobilizing Against COVID-19

March 12, 2020

Tech has been taking some heavy losses from the coronavirus pandemic. Global supply chains have been disrupted, virtually every major tech conference taking place over the next few months has been canceled... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Supercomputer Simulations Reveal the Fate of the Neanderthals

May 25, 2020

For hundreds of thousands of years, neanderthals roamed the planet, eventually (almost 50,000 years ago) giving way to homo sapiens, which quickly became the do Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

DoE Expands on Role of COVID-19 Supercomputing Consortium

March 25, 2020

After announcing the launch of the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium on Sunday, the Department of Energy yesterday provided more details on its sco Read more…

By John Russell

Steve Scott Lays Out HPE-Cray Blended Product Roadmap

March 11, 2020

Last week, the day before the El Capitan processor disclosures were made at HPE's new headquarters in San Jose, Steve Scott (CTO for HPC & AI at HPE, and former Cray CTO) was on-hand at the Rice Oil & Gas HPC conference in Houston. He was there to discuss the HPE-Cray transition and blended roadmap, as well as his favorite topic, Cray's eighth-gen networking technology, Slingshot. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Honeywell’s Big Bet on Trapped Ion Quantum Computing

April 7, 2020

Honeywell doesn’t spring to mind when thinking of quantum computing pioneers, but a decade ago the high-tech conglomerate better known for its control systems waded deliberately into the then calmer quantum computing (QC) waters. Fast forward to March when Honeywell announced plans to introduce an ion trap-based quantum computer whose ‘performance’ would... Read more…

By John Russell

Leading Solution Providers


Neocortex Will Be First-of-Its-Kind 800,000-Core AI Supercomputer

June 9, 2020

Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC - a joint research organization of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh) has won a $5 million award Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

‘Billion Molecules Against COVID-19’ Challenge to Launch with Massive Supercomputing Support

April 22, 2020

Around the world, supercomputing centers have spun up and opened their doors for COVID-19 research in what may be the most unified supercomputing effort in hist Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Australian Researchers Break All-Time Internet Speed Record

May 26, 2020

If you’ve been stuck at home for the last few months, you’ve probably become more attuned to the quality (or lack thereof) of your internet connection. Even Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Nvidia’s Ampere A100 GPU: Up to 2.5X the HPC, 20X the AI

May 14, 2020

Nvidia's first Ampere-based graphics card, the A100 GPU, packs a whopping 54 billion transistors on 826mm2 of silicon, making it the world's largest seven-nanom Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

15 Slides on Programming Aurora and Exascale Systems

May 7, 2020

Sometime in 2021, Aurora, the first planned U.S. exascale system, is scheduled to be fired up at Argonne National Laboratory. Cray (now HPE) and Intel are the k Read more…

By John Russell

10nm, 7nm, 5nm…. Should the Chip Nanometer Metric Be Replaced?

June 1, 2020

The biggest cool factor in server chips is the nanometer. AMD beating Intel to a CPU built on a 7nm process node* – with 5nm and 3nm on the way – has been i Read more…

By Doug Black

Summit Supercomputer is Already Making its Mark on Science

September 20, 2018

Summit, now the fastest supercomputer in the world, is quickly making its mark in science – five of the six finalists just announced for the prestigious 2018 Read more…

By John Russell

TACC Supercomputers Run Simulations Illuminating COVID-19, DNA Replication

March 19, 2020

As supercomputers around the world spin up to combat the coronavirus, the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) is announcing results that may help to illumina Read more…

By Staff report

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This